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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Are De Facto World Tours Inevitable?

Back in November 1994 Greg Norman pitched the idea of starting a World Tour -- 8 limited-field events with big purses and a rumored TV deal -- which Tim Finchem shot down by threatening to suspend any player who got involved. Two years later, Finchem launched his own idea for a series of world golf events that eventually became the WGC tournaments. (Tim Rosaforte covered some of the battle in 1996, in this article for Sports Illustrated.) Since then, different groups have suggested that the World Tour idea should be resurrected, that the time is right.

But I wonder if it's even necessary. It looks to me like we're already seeing World Tours develop, whether the powers-that-be want them or not. The term de facto in this post's title is a Latin term that means "in fact," "in reality," or "in practice."

The PGA requires a player to play 15 events to retain their membership; the European Tour is increasing their number to 13 in 2011. Let's use that as a baseline, shall we?

The world's best male players, regardless of what tour they belong to, already have a group of tournaments that they all generally play in. The four majors, TPC, and WGC events are variously recognized by most of the tours on this planet -- a total of 9 events which are supported by organizations with enough size, money, and clout to do whatever they want regardless of what any individual tour says. These events have the cache to attract whoever they want.

Other events like the BMW PGA Championship, the Barclays Singapore Open, and the UBS Hong Kong Open have purses that match the majors and WGC events... and many players from other tours are skipping their own events to play in them. That makes 12 events, and a few of the smaller-purse events are gaining notoriety among the players (or already have it, like Jack and Arnie's tournaments). If a few of those could bump their purses, especially in Australia and Africa...

Perhaps a World Tour is already here... and it doesn't require its "members" to play a minimum number of events.

I think this is happening because Americans are no longer the majority of top players in the world anymore (only 8 of the Top 20 this week, for example). And with several of the top players (like Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, and Rory McIlroy) choosing to "remain loyal" to their home tours because it no longer hurts them in the OWGR, sponsors are beginning to realize that there may be no advantage to getting their event on a particular tour -- the big names will come, as long as they don't schedule opposite another "world" event.

A similar phenomenom is happening with the ladies. The bloggers over at Seoul Sisters have written a detailed article about many Korean players opting for the JLPGA over the LPGA. With competitive players no longer limited mainly to one tour, the benefits of strong fields (higher purses and more world ranking points) are no longer limited to a single tour either. Many players are opting to stay closer to home, either for family reasons or simply because they don't want to travel as much. (This is also happening on the men's tours, of course. Witness Rory's recent comments about the loneliness of the US Tour and wanting to be nearer his girlfriend.) And perhaps because of this, co-sponsored events are popping up on all the tours -- regardless of gender -- as tighter economies send every tour scrambling for their piece of the pie.

And ultimately I think that is -- if you'll pardon the pun -- "the bottom line." Because when push comes to shove, it isn't the tour bureaucrats who will determine the future of tournament golf, but the sponsors and the players themselves. Greg Norman may have been the prophet who just didn't get the profit... but at this rate, neither will Tim Finchem and the PGA Tour, or the European Tour, or any other individual tour.

The World Tour may have arrived, whether we recognize it as such or not.

8 comments:

  1. The Players isn't recognized as an official tournament on the European Tour, and the new fourth WGC has some goofy rules as far as official money is concerned - but I understand what you're saying.

    But I really can't call what's going on right now anything like a "world tour".

    The Euroean Tour travels the eastern hemisphere with the weather. This time of year, they go to SE Asia and Australia, then move to South Africa and northern Africa before moving to actual European countries.

    The PGA Tour goes overseas twice - once in July for the British Open, then for a few tournaments in Asia after the official season ends - so these "world tour" events are exhibitions with rankings points.

    Outside of those tours, nobody else really travels. Nobody in their right mind is going to go very far into South America or much of continental Africa. (personally, I hope both tours wake up on China - that's one dangerous place - hypocritical to the core)

    The talk of a "world tour" revolves around a set schedule of events for a smallish number of top ranked players - and it always sounds like barnstorming rather than a serious tour.

    Until travel gets a lot faster, this talk will be just talk.

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  2. But that's why I call it a "de facto world tour." There's nothing official about it and it has nothing that resembles organization. But the big names are starting to frequent certain events, without regard for what tour they or the event is associated with. Those events -- the ones with the big names -- are the ones that will draw the big sponsors and the big network TV coverage. Eventually the tours will have to find someway to recognize those events... or they will risk alienating the big partners they need to survive.

    For example, as you point out, TPC isn't recognized by the other tours. But it has a reputation for getting a field almost as good as a major, and it has a huge purse. It has big-name sponsors, and NBC covers it every year. TPC is gradually taking on a life of its own.

    As the price tag goes up, sponsors are beginning to realize just how much power they have. They're starting to say they want certain places in the schedule. It's just a matter of time before these sponsors begin to coordinate with each other -- and since so many of the big players have deals with these sponsors, they can get both feedback and appearance commitments.

    This coordination could eliminate many of the travel problems you mentioned -- all you need are for two or three sponsors to put a convenient "block" together, like the HSBC China - Singapore - Hong Kong tournaments, and de-emphasize the money race aspects so more big names can be lured to the events.

    I think it's already happening. The best players can make as much money as they want playing where they want; the trick for tours and sponsors is to make them want to show up at their events. Those events will eventually become "the tour," regardless of the organization (or lack thereof) behind them.

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  3. Your second paragraph tells the only reason the top guys are showing up in these off season events. Big purses.

    PGA Tour guys don't get any benefit from them - it's the off season. Euro Tour guys get benefit because it's the runup to the Race to Dubai final. And Australia is paying appearance fees.

    You won't get any coordination on them because the European Tour season starts and ends in November while the PGA Tour starts in January and ends in October.

    What surprises me is that so few of the young PGA Tour guys don't spend at least a few years playing both tours. The top guys have 3 or 4 months between the end of the PGA Tour season and the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Most go early to the UK for a warmup at the Scottish Open, so getting in the extra 7 or 8 tournaments should be pretty easy.

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  4. You may see more of the young guns go over if the money increases on the ET. I've noticed the purses are growing on quite a few of their tournaments.

    When I mentioned de-emphasizing the money race aspects of some tournaments, here's what I meant: If the late-season events ceased to be playoffs in a money race, those events could open more spots to big-name players from other tours, improving the fields and drawing more TV attention.

    Of course, the money is precisely my point. It isn't some organization that will create a world tour... the money will. Call me cynical if you like, but it will... and sooner rather than later.

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  5. OK - let me get this straight - you're suggesting de-emphasizing the money...to professional golfers...who play for...anyone ? anyone ?...MONEY.

    The "playoffs" are sponsor events from Fed Ex - they really don't have any affect on anything other than the money list and some rankings points. Same for the run up events for the RtD.

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  6. Think about what I'm saying, Court. Remember Westwood saying that he didn't want to be forced to play the FedEx events? It's not that he didn't want the money, but that he would need to play in all four events rather than picking and choosing where he wanted to play. The idea of the FedEx events is that players are "urged" to play them all. And sponsors can't just "invite" a high-ranking non-member of the Tour to play in, say, the BMW Championship because it's a Tour-only money race event.

    As for the Race to Dubai, wouldn't you suspect that there are a limited number of open spots for foreign players? Sure, Mickelson played in the Barclays Singapore Open... but he has a deal with Barclays. Playoff events, whether over here or over there, tend to focus on the Tour members who are fighting it out for the money title, not getting the best field possible.

    That's why I think we may eventually see the money race aspect de-emphasized -- to attract more big-name players who don't belong to those respective tours. It may end up depending on how much say the rank-and-file players can maintain in the process. But the more it becomes a celebrity-driven tour, the more likely it is that we could see something like that happen.

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  7. First of all - Westwood is an idiot for saying that. There's no Tour rule requiring that anybody play the playoffs. That was a dumb statement. Truth be told - there's no reason NOT to play them if with the money that is on the table. And several of the top guys only play 2 of the 3 leading up to the Tour Championship.

    The Euro Tour doesn't restrict their membership. The Japan PGA does, but not the Euro Tour. If you're good enough to earn a card, it's yours. Mickelnuts had a sponsor's exemption...with the accompanying multi-million dollar appearance check.

    The RtD is directly connected to the Euro Tour just like the FEC is connected to the PGA Tour. Until this year, almost all of the top guys were on the PGA Tour and playing in the FEC. The few that were Euro Tour guys as well then had a few weeks before heading the the final few tournaments before Dubai.

    Basically, you're looking the wrong way. If you want a world tour, you're going to end up with a bunch of limited field events in 50-70 range for at least an $8 million purse, if not more. Otherwise, there's no real incentive for these guys to go globetrotting any more than they do.

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  8. I think we're arguing at cross-purposes here, because it sounds to me like I didn't make my point clear. All I'm saying is that a world tour won't be created intentionally by any group, but will just evolve on its own... and I think that evolution is already happening.

    In another 5 years, I think you'll be surprised how close this post may be to describing the state of golf. It's just a matter of time.

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